Many years ago I heard the late great chemist Henry Eyring tell a story about Albert Einstein. It was during the Second World War, and they were walking across the Harvard University campus, where they were working together on a project. The beautiful grass field had been turned into a vegetable garden to support the war effort. Dr. Eyring happened to ask Dr. Einstein what kind of plants they were walking past. Einstein had no idea. It turned out they were bean plants. Dr. Eyring ended the story with the comment that the brilliant Albert Einstein didn't know beans.
In a Max Knudson story Wednesday, July 1, it was reported that three of Utah's top economists were not high on TRAX, Salt Lake County's light-rail system. I would never dispute their credentials as economists. I suspect that in the business of understanding the esoteric art of predicting the broad trends of the commerce of our state and region, there are no finer minds than the three referenced in the article. I do question, however, their credentials as experts in transportation.The TRAX system has been developed after years of careful analysis by real transportation experts at the Utah Transit Authority, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and a variety of transportation engineering firms with national and international reputations.
Mr. Thredgold, Mr. Matthews and Mr. Mitchell seem to think that TRAX was only planned with the economic future of downtown Salt Lake City in mind. They say they would not ride it. The fact is that as part of a transportation system, it will carry many of the thousands of transit riders already riding transit in that corridor faster, more comfortably, more economically and more environmentally. If the conservative projections by transportation experts (certainly as reliable as the economic projections of the three gentlemen) and the experiences of every other city with light-rail are any indication, it will also attract a significant number of new transit riders. It will also allow the realignment of the bus system to improve transit service countywide. Will it benefit downtown? Yes, after some admittedly challenging times during construction.
The real benefit, however, will be all along the corridor and valleywide. Several years ago, Dr. Thayne Robson's Bureau of Economic and Business Research completed a study, which was also reported in a Max Knudson column, that found that the economic benefits of the public transit provided by the Utah Transit Authority were broad and far-reaching. TRAX is nothing more than a more efficient technology, in a heavily traveled corridor, to supplement the bus service already praised after careful economic analysis by the experts.
Is it possible that Mr. Thredgold and Mr. Matthews have had their opinions about the downtown issues shaped by the fact that the banks that employ both of them were two of the few - but powerful - business interests that attempted to sue Salt Lake City and UTA to force a rerouting of TRAX? Mr. Mitchell's comments about the Portland system clearly indicate that he has never looked at the system. Contrary to his assertions, ridership has exceeded projections, and he has obviously never talked to the merchants along the right of way - I have. The majority of merchants downtown love it. Those in the Lloyd Center (partway out of town) do as well. Shortly after opening, the Chamber of Commerce in Gresham (like our Sandy at the other end of the line), after opposing the system throughout development, passed a resolution asking that it be rerouted closer to their stores.
Mr. Matthews' assertions that the best way to get value out of a car is to drive it as much as possible is an interesting point of view. I think most people would think of a car as a very large personal expenditure that you should make last as long as you can. The fact is that the vast majority of UTA's current riders are discretionary riders who own cars and could drive if they chose.
I think the opinions of these three economists are interesting but not convincing. If I want expert advice about economics or banking, I certainly would not look to the Utah Transit Authority. If I want expert advice on transportation, I just as certainly would not look to Misters Matthews, Thredgold or Mitchell, no matter how brilliant. They don't know beans . . . about transportation.